Thursday, September 06, 2007

Notes on The Blue Umbrella

In his earlier work (including Maqbool and Omkara), Vishal Bhardwaj has shown a fine sense of shot-composition and the effective use of colour and music in film. These qualities are also on view in The Blue Umbrella/Chatri Chor, which he made in 2005 but which has only just been commercially released. It’s a very absorbing film, though perhaps 15 minutes too long. I’ve seen it described as a "children's movie", but this is slightly misleading: though it’s based on a gentle Ruskin Bond story, Bhardwaj’s treatment owes an equal debt to the dark fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, an effect that’s underlined by Pankaj Kapur's superb performance as a very Himachali Big Bad Wolf.

The story is about how a vivid blue umbrella affects the lives of a number of people in a quiet hillside village. A young girl named Biniya gets it from a group of tourists in exchange for her lucky charm, a bear-claw locket; thereafter, she carries the umbrella around with her everywhere, mesmerising the rest of the villagers who have never seen anything like it before. Kapur plays Nandkishor, a covetous, honey-tongued shopkeeper who is feared by children because of his habit of selling goods supposedly on loan but holding on to treasured items as collateral and never returning them. Naturally, he can’t tear his greedy eyes away from Biniya’s new possession. He tries to wheedle it out of her using such enticements as a year’s supply of toffees and biscuits, but when she refuses, he resolves to have it anyway.

The film is a bit uneven in places, but some bits are brilliant. Especially notable is the way Bhardwaj subtly changes the tone and mood of the story, giving us a gradual movement from a bright, sunshine-y world to a dark, nightmarish one. With the umbrella, Biniya’s world is happy and secure - she poses with it for tourist photographs and there is even a surreal moment when she turns into a swashbuckling heroine figure, saving her pehlwan brother from a cobra. But after the umbrella goes missing she enters a twilight zone full of shadowy figures. Even the once-friendly faces from the village can no longer be trusted - everyone seems to be gloating at her misfortune, for the umbrella had become a catalyst for envy and discontent.
There is a sense here of simple, idyllic lives being thrown into disarray by the introduction of an alien object; of unseemly feelings being introduced into a garden of Eden. (Not making an absolute comparison here, or likening the villagers to monkeys, but the look of wonder and awe on some of the faces reminded me of the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, with pre-historic man contemplating the perfectly smooth monolith that will change his life - for good and for bad.)

But the loss also awakens a new maturity in Biniya.
Some of her later scenes show an intensity that belies her age: we see that she's learnt something about how the world works, and about the perils of getting too attached to something. (It’s worth recalling here that the Red Riding Hood story is sometimes seen as an allegory for a young girl's sexual awakening, though I doubt Bhardwaj - or Ruskin Bond - would have had this in mind!) Towards the end of the film, when Nandkishor has become an outcaste, it's fitting that the first person to reach out to him is the girl he stole from, who knows firsthand about the lure of the blue umbrella.

P.S. Kapur’s snivelling, predatory Nandkishor reminded me of another character that is a stand-in for the Big Bad Wolf, from a 50-year-old film: Robert Mitchum’s preacher in The Night of the Hunter. Like Nandkishor, the preacher is menacing and comic at the same time: he is deliberately made to look grotesque in some scenes, such as the one where he trips and falls, arms outstretched and flailing, while chasing his stepchildren into a basement, and the image of his shadow on the wall makes him seem like a villain out of a speeded-up Disney feature. Similarly Nandkishor, for all his meanness, is a basically pathetic figure, aspiring for things that will forever stay out of his reach. By the film's end, however, he has achieved redemption on a minor scale, which is more than can be said for the Mitchum character.


  1. Not seen the movie yet, so no comment on it. But -

    There is a sense here of simple, idyllic lives being thrown into disarray by the introduction of an alien object; of unseemly feelings being introduced into a garden of Eden.

    This sentence reminded me instantly of the first Gods Must Be Crazy movie, where the introduction of a glass cold drink bottle sows discord in the lives of an African tribe.

    Your comparison is better, I think.

  2. Thanks. That's another good example, of course - the Coca Cola bottle being flung out of a helicopter (was it?) and hitting a tribesman on the head.

  3. i am loving your blog, being introduced to it recently.... do you also bharadwaj introduces a sense of craving fot he umbrella in the audience?! I felt so...

  4. Thanks. Yes, that's something I should have mentioned - by making the umbrella so attractive to us, the viewers, the director is in a sense implicating us in Nandkishor's greed. That makes it easier to sympathize with him at the end.

  5. I am here for the first time, and I should say I am truly hooked!! Shall be back for more for sure!


  6. I remember reading the book as a part of curriculum in the 5th standard. I simply loved the story. Sad, that i have not watched the movie yet.I had imagined Biniyas and Nand's faces and features while reading the book then. Nothing close to the ones in the film tho! :)

  7. Been waiting to see this movie for a while now. Hope that it comes out to Mangalore sometime in October so I can watch it!